SGU Episode 257

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SGU Episode 257
14th June 2010
SGU 256 SGU 258
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein

Quote of the Week
Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.
Sir Winston Churchill
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You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, your escape to reality.

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe. Today is Monday, June 14th, 2010 and this is your host Steven Novella. Joining me this week are Bob Novella–

B: Hey everybody.

S: Jay Novella–

J: Hey guys.

S: and Evan Bernstein.

E: Hey everyone. How are you doing tonight?

B: Okay.

J: Quite well.

E: Good.

S: No Rebecca tonight because we are on the lead up to TAM recording schedule. We going to have a little bit of a weird recording schedule the next few weeks and Rebecca was not available tonight and she has no internet access.

J: That's because her and Sid bought a house.

S: That's right.

J: She hasn't been able to get internet and cable, I guess, to the house yet.

E: Yeah. But it's a big secret. Don't tell anyone, folks.

S: They're moving into a new flat. Is it still a flat if it's a house?

B: No. Wait wait, no, a flat's an apartment, isn't it?

S: Are they moving into a house house, or is it like a condo or what is it?

J: I think it's a house house.

S: But no cable yet.

J: Bob, if she has a house, that means she has a basement which means she could run a haunt in her house.

B: Not necessarily. Florida houses don't have basements but that's because of the water table.

J: Well, no. If she's in England she has a root cellar.

B: Yeah, right.

J: Which is even creepier.

This Day in Skepticism (1:19)

E: Well, on this day in 1648 Margaret Jones was hanged in Boston for witchcraft. The first such execution for the Massachusetts colony.

S: How many people were killed?

E: Yeah, they didn't stop with Margaret. It was 20 people.

S: Were executed.

E: We executed for witchcraft.

J: Wow. And we got off lucky. Didn't–in Europe wasn't it a much bigger phenomenon in Europe?

S: A conservative number is around 60,000 deaths directly attributable to the witch hunts.

J: Wow.

S: Depending on how you count it. There were 20 people executed in Salem. 19 hung and that one guy, Giles Corey was crushed to death cause he refused to enter a plea.

News Items

Hayabusa Returns (2:02)

S: Well Bob, tell us about Hayabusa returning to Earth.

B: Yeah, this is pretty cool. I totally forgot about this guy but this is an interesting story. The Japanese space agency known as JAXA, Jay-Ay-Ex-Ay, completed a mission recently to bring a sample of an asteroid back to Earth. This is something that's never been accomplished before and regardless of what happens there has never been a spacecraft that touched down on an asteroid and then came back to Earth. So regardless if they even brought anything back with them this was a first. Like I said, the only real question that remains as of the taping of this podcast anyway is whether the canister they retrieved in Australia has any asteroid. If you remember back in 2003, JAXA's Hayabusa craft began a 2 year journey to an asteroid named Itokawa and I wish I could say the mission went swimmingly but I can't. The craft really experienced some nasty technical difficulties. It seems likes throughout the whole way, or at least through a lot of it. They just kept hitting problem after problem. They even had some–some solar flair even messed up with it's power source so the energy that it had was less than they had anticipated and some of the biggest failures, though, was they had this metal ball that they would shoot–or they planned on shooting at the asteroid to collect rock samples and that failed. And then there was another mechanism, which they were planning on using to stir up the dust around the lander on the asteroid and that failed as well to collect any samples. So you might think that it was a total bust but the real hope at this point is that they hope that the dust that stirred up during the landing kind of just was swirling around and entered the canister–the collection canister so that's really all their hope is on that.

S: So they really don't know if there's going to be anything in that canister.

B: Oh, yeah, they have no idea at this point. It doesn't look good to me.

J: Is it on it's way back to Earth or it can analyze it.

B: It came back to Earth. The craft burned up in the atmosphere but it ejected this heat protected canister which landed at the Woomera Protected Area which is a restricted military zone in south Australian desert. Now some conspiracy hypothesists may say that in reality this whole 7 year mission was a subtle attempt to get access to this restricted military zone. But, ya know, I'm just saying.

J: Look at that. It landed in Area 51. Could we go get it?

B: Yeah. Yeah.


B: But, being silly, but I want to congratulate JAXA, though. Even if there's no sample which would really be nasty, but even if there's no sample, it was a great effort that tested lots of new technologies, like, for example, sampling and retrieval, electrical propulsion, autonomous navigation. So lots of interesting new technologies and this really was a test bed. Problems like this are to be expected.

J: At this point any kind of space exploration is awesome.

B: Yeah, right.

J: In the time when we're worried that it's all gonna go away and dry up–

B: Yeah.

J: I'm really happy to hear about stuff like this.

B: That's true. But you really got to hand it to JAXA, though, because they relentlessly attacked every difficulty that arose creatively solving problems, and according to some people it was Apollo 13 in scale in terms of how difficult these problems were.

J: Wow.

B: But granted, lives were not on the line, but still they had to go through a lot. On the way home they lost half of their engines kicked out and they had to figure out how to get home with only half the engines running so they did an amazing job.

J: I don't like you comparing it to Apollo 13 because it being unmanned is one thing and the other thing was they got those people back to Earth safely with an enormous amount of effort. Nothing can match that.

B: Yeah, I'm not comparing it and I did kind of say that not in terms of the lives but in terms of creative problem solving it was similar. Some people are comparing it.

J: Well, if they make a movie about it I might believe it then.

S: Cause it's not real unless Hollywood does a movie about it.

B: As you can imagine this is a huge, huge news story in Japan. They're really playing it up. It's all over the place, cause this is–it's quite a feat. Regardless of what happens this is a first, so that's great. If they have a sample, even better, cause you learn lots of things about the solar system–because we don't have–think about it–the material we have from asteroids really is just meteorites, right, that have landed on the earth and they've gone through the atmosphere. They're not the same.

S: Yeah.

B: When you come through the atmosphere–they're not the same.

E: Burn, yeah. Stuff burns away and, yeah.

B: This will be pristine. This will be pristine rock and that will be invaluable.

J: Do you guys think that one day we will park satellites in orbit and just mine them?

S: Oh yeah. Mine asteroids?

E: You mean bring them into a close orbit and then we send up vehicles and stuff to start plowing them for their platinum and all they're goodies?

J: Yeah. And how about–

B: Absolutely.

J: One thing that I remember thinking about when I was younger, why not put it in the same orbit that the earth is in, but just behind the earth. Would that mean that it would have to be the same size as the earth, though, in order to be in the same orbit?

B: The velocity would be very different then. It couldn't have the same velocity because the mass would be so different, so, at some point, it would intersect with the earth. So I don't think that would work, Jay.

E: You would need something to constantly regulate it's distance from the earth, right?

S: You put it at a Lagrange point and it will sit there.

B: Yeah. There ya go. Problem solved.

S: A Lagrange point is a–if you have a map, a three dimensional map of the gravitational fields of the earth and the sun, for example, or any large body orbiting another large body, then those fields hit a pit, or they dip to a minimum. So anything that is at those points it's like being at the bottom of a hill, it's stuck there and it won't move away so it's actually fixed in position relative to the earth. So it would be perfect for something that we want to put someplace and have it stay there in terms of it's relationship to the earth.

J: It's kind of like drafting, right?

S: No.


J: Come on, a little bit.

S: But to complete that discussion there are a total of 5 Lagrangian points. One in the orbit of, lets say the earth, in front of it. One behind the earth in it's orbit. One on the opposite side of Earth's orbit. One between the earth and the sun and one outside the orbit on a line between the earth and the sun but farther than the earth. So five points total. A few of which would be pretty close. But also, there are asteroids that are said to quote unquote "stalk" the earth. For example, recently discovered the 2009 BD. It's not stationary with respect to the earth but it does–cause it interacts with the earth's gravity and it's not at a Lagrangian point, but it does get close to the earth and will sort of corkscrew around the earth's orbit and stay very close to use for a while and then maybe drift away and come back in it's orbit. It's got a very weird orbit but it does stay close to the earth.

Einstein's Brain (9:22)

NPR: Einstein's Brain Unlocks Some Mysteries Of The Mind

S: Jay, tell us about the amazing adventure of Einstein's brain.

J: So this is a very interesting story. Before I get into the story let me just ask you guys a few questions. One, what makes you think Einstein was so smart? What was it about his brain that makes him smart? Some things that I'm sure most skeptics have heard was that, "Einstein used 10% of his brain where the regular person only uses 2 or 2.5%." You guys have heard of that, right?

B: Oh, course.

E: Or something similar to it, yeah.

S: That's only be debunked about a million times on the internet and elsewhere, I believe, in our publication.

E: Of course. That's what my phrenologist says.

S: That's right.

J: Here's one that is less common, but I've also heard and I believe I also used to think about this when I was younger and not knowing much about the brain but another thing that people think is that Einstein's brain had more hills and valleys on the exterior part of his brain.

S: Sulci and gyri?

J: Yeah. So, that's basically the shape of the brain on the outside that makes it look like a brain. All those hills and valleys and little bumps and stuff that are on the outside of somebodies brain.

S: Yes.

J: But, Steve, you said at one point that that does not mean you're smarter, correct?

S: Well, not comparing one individual to another. There's too much variation to say that but that certainly is true when you compare species. The–what those do–what the gyri and sulci do–if you imagine the layers of the cortex and then fold it upon themselves like a ribbon that's what forms that structure and what the essentially does is it increases the surface area of the brain. So it's just a way of squeezing more computational surface area into a smaller three dimensional space which was obviously important to the evolution of our bigger, juicier brains. But you can't compare person A to person B and go, "Oh, he's got to be smarter because his brain looks smarter on an MRI scan. He's got more sulci." Doesn't work that way.

B: Steve, why not also fill in the valleys between the hills? Between the gyri or the sulci or whatever they are?

S: They're squished together. It's not significant.

B: Oh, okay.

S: I mean, when you get old and your brain shrivels up and atrophies then you see expanded sulci and spaces but–

J: Your brain really shrivels up, huh?

S: Yeah, doesn't that suck?

J: What the hell?

B: Yeah, but Steve, I thought the idea, though, behind that was that they're not sure if the brain is really truly atrophying really, hugely, impacting cognition or is it just paring away the unessential parts of the brain that really aren't needed.

J: Yeah, like motor skills and deep thinking.


B: Barring, of course, dementia.

J: Yeah, right Bob?

S: Well, that's a complicated question. First of all those are not mutually exclusive cause both those things could be occurring at the same time. The pruning hypothesis where it's just cutting back neurons were sitting there waiting to be recruited but they haven't been, so they just go away at some point, but even still you imagine that there's fewer neurons around to be recruited so–after 50 or so we do start to lose our capacity to learn new things. We lose our flexibility. At least most of us. Some people really don't and they're brains don't atrophy as much, either.

J: Bastards.

S: So, some people genetically are built for more neurological longevity. But, yeah, you can't–I don't think it's accurate to say that there's no relationship between the atrophy of the brain as we age and the loss of cognitive ability. There absolutely is a relationship but it's complicated and we're not sure exactly what it is.

B: Yeah.

E: Yeah, it's not a black and white issue. It's more of a grey matter.

B: Oh.

J: Oh, wow, Evan, really?


J: Alright, so guys, let me continue. It's basically a story that I'm going to quickly tell everyone and then we'll discuss it.

B: Alright.

E: I love stories. Okay. I'm ready.

J: So this man, named Thomas Harvey–

B: Harvey.

E: Harvey.

B: Harvey.

J: and he–he actually performed the autopsy on Einstein at Princeton. Now this back in–Now this was when, '55 I believe Einstein died?

B: Yeah, around there.

E: Yes.

J: Okay. So, this is what the article said. The article said that during the autopsy routine the brain would be removed, examined, and then put back in the person's body for burial. Okay?

S: Which, by the way–we don't do that today. I don't know–that sounds odd. We don't put the brain back in the head. You take it out, you put it in a jar of formaldehyde and pickle it for 2 weeks, so that you can slice it up and look at it. Cause otherwise it's too much like jelly. You can't really slice into it. So that bit of that story certainly is not what's done today.

J: Well maybe he took it out–cause it did say that he did put it in formaldehyde–

S: Well that's routine. That's routine.

J: He was preparing it. He kept it out for the amount of time necessary and then instead of putting it back after the examination of the brain he kept it.

S: Yeah. Well, I think probably what happened is normally you would take it out, you pickle it for 2 weeks then you do what's called brain cutting. You slice it all the way through and you look for pathology and you look for the structures and whatnot and that's it. Then slides get filed away and the rest of it get thrown out, gets discarded as medical waste. Or, or, what can happen, sometimes the family may request that every last scrap of material gets returned and gets buried with the body.

J: Alright. I'm sure that's–

S: That happens sometimes, too. In fact, that happens even with–sometimes people will donate their body to science and their body will be dissected by medical students. Sometimes those bodies are just cremated. Other times everything's got to be put back–you don't put it back together but basically all bundled up and then sent back to the family to be buried or whatever they want to do with it. So–

E: That is a typical Jewish custom. I don't know how religious or close Einstein was to strict Jewish customs but I can tell you that that is Jewish customs. You bury as much of the remains as you possibly can.

S: Yeah. So he probably–he held back the brain. He didn't do with it whatever was normally supposed to happen to it.

J: No. He stole it. That's what happened.

S: Yeah. He stole it. Yeah.

E: Brain thief.

B: I'm going to donate my body to science fiction.


J: Alright. Continuing on–

S: You stole that joke from somebody.

J: So Thomas Harvey, because of what he did, because he kept Einstein's brain, he lost his job. Which seems to be the appropriate thing to take place.

E: Bad trade.

S: Cause that was unethical. What he did.

J: And during that process he claimed that Einstein's son, Hans, gave him permission but that claim was denied by the family.

S: What about Frans?


J: So, as I'm reading through this I realize, of course, hindsight being 20/20, I don't disagree with what the guy did. I think it was obvious to him at the time that there was something important about Einstein's brain and it should be studied further. Shouldn't just be thrown away.

S: Yeah. It kind of makes you wish that somebody at NASA thought that about the moon landing footage.

B: Oh my God.

S: "Ya know, I'm going to put this aside and not put it–file it with the rest of the tapes that are going to get erased and reused."

B: Yeah. Or, "Lets make a couple of backups, just in case. Or put it somewhere else. I don't know."

S: Alright. Anyway.

J: I've really gotta–let me sprint to the finish guys.

B: Thanks for reminding me.

S: Alright, go ahead.

E: Yes.

J: Alright. So I mentioned that I don't disagree. What Thomas Harvey wanted was he wanted neuro-anatomists to analyse Einstein's brain and see if they could find something out about it that we didn't know about the human brain before and that was his goal but as the story goes–so 40 years passes and then a writer named, Paterniti, he heard about all these events that we just went through and he decided that–I guess he wanted to write about what had taken place so he tracks down and finds Harvey. Okay?

S: Did he sue him?

J: No. This guys an author.

S: So he didn't give him a Paterniti suit?


J: Oh my god. You're on a roll tonight, Steve.

B: Oh my god.

J: Any who, so, he tracks down Harvey, gets into a long conversation with him and, I guess, between the conversation and the two of them going back and forth they mutually decide the brain should be returned to Einstein's family and, I guess they new at the time that his granddaughter Evelyn was still alive so they wanted to return it to her. So Paterniti drives to Harvey's house, he described Harvey as bringing out Einstein's brain in a Tupperware jar. In a Tupperware container.

E: Tupperware.

J: Okay.

E: Ah. That would seal in the freshness, yeah.

J: So the two of them planned to drive across the country from New Jersey all the way to California where the granddaughter lived. I guess they conversation had continued during this drive and Paterniti found out that Einstein had indeed–I'm sorry, that Harvey had indeed been sending out Einstein's brain when samples were requested he would take the samples and send them to neurologists across the globe. So, when saw the brain in the Tupperware container it had been cut up. It was sliced up. So, Harvey sent 3 different samples to a scientist named Marian Diamond and she had contacted Harvey years earlier and requested samples from 3 different parts of Einstein's brain and he did end up shipping them to her but he ended up shipping them to her in an old mayonnaise jar.

B: Oh my god.

J: Okay? Not making this up.

E: Wow.

J: This was around 1980. She studied the samples. She found that Einstein's brain had normal amount of neurons but he had a higher than normal percentage of a different kind of brain cell and that cell was called a glial cell. That increase in glial cells was found especially in the parts of the brain that involved imagery and complex thinking, so that definitely made Diamond realize, "Well, this is very curious. Let me look into it." But first, Steve, why don't you tell us what a glial cell is.

B: Support cells, aren't they?

S: Yeah. It's the other kinds of cells in the brain other than neurons and they are–yeah, for many years we thought they were basically support cells.

B: Like structural cells.

S: Not just structural but they create the friendly environment for the neurons.

B: Okay.

S: Right, they're there keeping the neurons alive and happy while the neurons are doing their job of remembering and calculating and stuff.

B: Kind of like the Remora around sharks.

S: I guess.

J: So, at the time–


J: Diamond was now asking questions like, "Well, why would there be more of these cells here if they're really just support cells? What's the significance of there being more of them here?" And it was a very odd idea at the time to think that glial cells had anything to do with Einstein's intelligence. Being that the cells were thought to be there for perhaps structural integrity perhaps there to just be, like Steve said, like more support cells than actual cells that were there for thinking. Alright, so now we go forward another 10 years and another researcher named Steven J. Smith published a paper that changed the perception of and understanding of the brain because what he did was–he was studying neurons and he was also studying these glial cells and he speculated that glial cells also were a part of the communication that happened within the cell and that also these cells weren't only communicating chemically but they were communicating with electricity in the manner that neurons communicate. And then he kept on fleshing out his idea and he also said that these glial cells could possibly be picking up communication between neurons–neurons are communicating with each other, glial cells would be listening in on this communication and then sending that data to other parts of the brain. So he came up with this idea that the brain–it's another way that the brain could be communicating internally. Which at the time was a profound idea. They though, at the time, that only neurons were doing the heavy lifting and that even though there was a ton of other cells in the brain that they didn't think really were doing anything. Neurons were it, but once they realized, "You know what? These glial cells might actually be doing complex things like be involved in learning and memory and ideas that we have of like what does it mean to be a genius. Glial cells might have something to do with high end thinking." So, once that started that started to really open up new ideas and that started a whole different school of thought. So then yet another scientist named, Doug Fields, he reproduced Smith's research and confirmed that it was actually valid. And, at one point, Doug Fields wrote, "Now we can see scores of ways in which astrocytes could be involved in many cognitive processes." And now it's not so crazy to find that there were abnormally high numbers of astrocytes in the parts of Einstein's brain involved in imagery and mathematical ability and that sort of thing. So, that was a pretty huge milestone and a huge leap forward in our understanding of the human brain. So in 2007, Harvey died. He really didn't know that him taking Einstein's brain, actually through these steps and through these different people actually lead to a move forward in our understanding of the riddle of the mind, but it seems that he actually did have something to do with it. And, Einstein's granddaughter didn't end up wanting her grandfather's brain so Harvey, before he died, he returned the brain back to the pathology department at Princeton, where it is today.

E: Hey, can you only find out the number of astrocytes by cutting into a brain or is there a way to test it while you're still alive?

S: Yeah, you can estimate it just by knowing what the density of astrocytes are and then calculating it by volume but if you want to look at an individuals astrocyte density, yeah, you gotta stain it. You gotta cut into it.

J: So, Steve, could you just take a little–take a biopsy of somebody's brain and test it that way?

S: Yeah. You could.

E: I don't think you could do–really?

S: Yeah. Why not?

E: Well, are you supposed to be biopsying the brain for this kind of testing purposes. It's really more for diseases.

S: Well, you wouldn't do this. You wouldn't do that. You wouldn't biopsy a humans brain just out of curiosity but we do it for diagnostic purposes but it's got to be worth while to the person.

E: Right. There's got to be something going on that you're looking for the answer for a cure or something.

B: Risk benefit.

J: Steve, if they–I know it's not uncommon–brain surgery happens all the time. They open up people's skulls. They literally get in there with tools and go deep into the brain and remove tumors and do things like that. Cognitively if you did take someone's skull off, or a portion of the skull, and just cut out, say a jelly bean sized piece of the brain, under the idea that the person isn't going to bleed to death or whatever, just removing a piece of the brain then putting the skull piece back and letting the person heal. What would they lose from losing a portion of the brain that size?

B: Depends. It depends on the portion.

E: Lobotomi–You're lobotomizing a person at that point.

B: It totally depends. My guess would be that either it's totally unnoticeable or you'd be completely debilitated.

S: Bob's right. It completely depends on which jelly bean piece of brain you take out.

B: Take the hypothalamus and you're f'd.

S: For example, the right frontal lobe is largely redundant and you could do a lot of stuff to that without producing and noticeable deficits.

E: Wow.

S: And, in fact, when surgeons have to go into the brain they prefer to do the non-dominant frontal lobe because it's mostly redundant, but, you take out language cortex and you can make somebody completely lose their ability to speak, for example.

B: It'd be like a stroke, Jay. It'd be like a stroke.

J: But even a piece that small?

S: If it's critical, yeah.

J: So there is one place in your brain that a certain type of functionality is happening and there's parts of your brains which is just storage for memory, there's parts of your brain that is doing something like processing what you see or what you hear. So you're better off losing a little portion of your memory than you are like a major piece of functionality, of course, but, I thought it was more evenly distributed.

S: No. No no. It's not and it's also–memory's pretty evenly distributed but functions are localized and there's also–it's not just how localized it is it's how redundant it is. If something's really lateralized to one side you only have one piece of your brain that's doing that thing then you don't want to lose that. If you have bilateral redundancy then obviously you can afford to lose one cause the other side will make up for it. So, yeah, it depends on a lot of things. Interestingly, when reading through science news items this week–just this week was a study published by Swedish researchers from the University of Gothenburg and they were looking at astrocytes, which are a form of glial cells, and their effects on neuronal connections and function and essentially what they found is that the astrocytes are modulating the strength of the signalling between the neurons. Now, they basically are effecting how those synapses between neurons change over time. So what that means is is that the astrocytes might actually be directly involved in the formation of memories and plasticity of the brain and learning. Which, again, is just further evidence for their greatly enhanced role in actual memory function of the brain, not just, again, as support cells. So that research is ongoing and that was a huge shift in our thinking about the role of astrocytes.

Largest Radio Telescope Array (27:49)

S: Well lets go on. We have another bit of astronomy news, Bob, you're going to tell us about the largest radio telescope ever.

B: Yeah. This one's a quickie. This is the biggest radio telescope in the world and it was recently unveiled by scientists in the Netherlands. It's called LOFAR which stands Low Frequency Array. I think we touched upon this a while back. It consists of a whopping 25,000 small antennas and they're real tiny. They range in size from 50 centimeters to about 2 meters across. So they're not very big at all. And they're all spread out all over, not only the Netherlands, but also Germany, Sweden, France and Britain. And it's pretty cool. This thing is really going to do some amazing work I predict. Femke Beckhurst of the Netherlands Radio Astronomy Institute said, "Today we have launched the biggest radio telescope in the world. When you combine all the antennas you get a giant telescope with a diameter of about 1,000 kilometers," which is about 600 miles so that's pretty big. And it takes some nifty software to actually take all those separate signals and stitch them together. They're actually using a supercomputer to do some of that work. It's the Blue Gene P supercomputer which is a petaflop class supercomputer. So it's pretty fast. So with these observations that this radio telescope, or, I guess you can call it radio telescopes–So, the observations that they're going to be able to make with this–they're going to learn about the origin of the universe and some people are saying that they'll be able to go to the moment right after the big bang. Other–some other key science projects for LOFAR are what they call the epoch of re-ionization which is basically when the universe turned on. When things became. Also, things like ultra high energy cosmic rays which are a bit of a mystery, such as the one we mentioned–we mentioned one such cosmic ray a while back called the Oh My God Particle in 1991 which is probably the most energetic cosmic ray ever detected which was so powerful–imagine it was a subatomic particle with the energy of a baseball travelling at 60 miles an hour. Imagine, you get hit with one proton and it knocks you on your butt like it was a baseball travelling 60. So, amazingly fast. We're not sure what could have imparted so much energy to such a tiny thing. It was travelling so close to the speed of light it was essentially just a whisker–

S: Yeah. But to clarify, it wouldn't really knock you on your butt, right? It would just go right through you.

B: No. It's too tiny. Right. It is too tiny and it could do some damage, though, if it happened to hit the right, whatever in your body, DNA or something.

E: Well, what if it hit a computer or something? It would really screw that up.

B: That's a lot of kinetic energy. I don't know where–how all the kinetic energy would be transferred. Would it be transferred into heat. Would it fly right through? Probably–it might just fly right through.

S: Or maybe it will smash through several particles on its way.

B: Yeah. It might hit–if hit's something squarely it could start a cascade so I think if it's just right it could actually–it could be noticeable. But there's other things–the solar science and space weather, cosmic magnetism, so I'm sure this thing is going to be used for a really long time and hopefully maybe even get even bigger.

E: Hey, Bob, what's the difference between the moment of the Big Bang and the moment of first illuminosity, I think is the word you used?

B: Well, I believe it was 100,000 years or 1,000 years, it was a lot of time before things calmed down enough. Things were just so energetic that light–any photons that might have been generated were just bouncing around all over the place and they really couldn't settle down and just take a straight line any direction so there's nothing to see if you look back in visible light there's nothing to see cause all the photons are just kinda bouncing around. But also this epoch of re-ionization–that's kind of a different term than I'm used to. They refer to it as when things became luminous so I think it depends on–are they talking about the first stars, the first galaxies, the first quasars?

S: I guess so.

B: If that's what they're talking about then that would actually be after what I'm talking–what I've just mentioned which is also called photon decoupling. So actually this epoch is a little bit different. I think it's later on.

E: It's just amazing that they can make that distinction or make the determination that so much–however much time it is happened between the two.

B: Yeah.

E: You think of the Big Bang–certainly in a visual display you're watching some show on TV that kinda of describes it and it's an intense white spot of light from the get go. At least that's how the depict it. So–

S: Yeah. But they always give you the impossible perspective of being outside the universe when the Big Bang happens.

B: Space time, yeah.

S: But that's not a possible perspective. So it's kind of misleading.

J: Yeah. A little.

S: And a lot of that is–evidence is theoretical. They're just well what should have happened if you have the mass of the universe at a point and then what would happen over time? Based upon the temperatures and what things are like at those temperatures. You know what I mean?

E: But maybe this large radio telescope will help fill in those gaps.

B: Some of them.

S: Hopefully.

B: If it can actually get close to the moment after the Big Bang then absolutely it will be able to do–it will illuminate us in many ways.

E: Very cool.

J: I still don't get the concept that when the Big Bang took place–like, where it was specially in reality. You can't go to that space–that place in outer space because it doesn't really–

S: Yeah.

B: Sure you can. Wherever you go, there you are.

J: Oh, geez. Really, Bob?

E: It happened everywhere–

B: It's true. It's true. It's everywhere. You can't point to it because it's not one specific spot. It's everywhere.

J: Well, it didn't happen right here.

E: It might have.

S: Every part of the universe was at that point, Jay, at that time.

J: Yeah, so, meaning that the universe is growing in size.

S: Of course. But it's like–if you do the two dimensional analogy, it's like blowing up a balloon. Where was it before you blew it up? Well it's–

J: How–right. Try to explaining to a two dimensional creature on that balloon where–

E: It was in the package.

J: where the center is.

S: You'd have to point into the 4th dimension.

B: Exactly.

J: I can't picture it.

S: Right.

Amityville Horror House for Sale (34:11)

Rogue's Gallery: Amityville Horror House for Sale

S: So, the Amityville Horror House is back in the news.

E: And it's back in the news because its up for sale.

S: Sale. That's right. For what? 1.5 million?

E: 1.15 million dollars.

B: In this market?

J: I know. Isn't that crazy?

S: You can own a piece of paranormal history.

B: But, is that price kind of crazy for the neighborhood because the house is famous?

E: I don't know. I imagine that has something to do with it. They said they'd done a lot of renovations recently on the house. So—Look, I imagine the main factor, like any other piece of property is—

S: Location.

E: comparable—yeah, location and comparable houses for sale in the area.

S: But here's my question. Now, typically, if a house is alleged to be haunted or if a murder took place there it's considered psychologically damaged and that actually reduces the value of the house. But in this case it's famous for being psychologically damaged, so does that increase the value of the house?

E: Or do the two equal each other out?

S: The balance out?

E: The negative and positive balance out.

S: Right.

E: Yeah. So, there were a series of murders there in 1974. Ronald DeFeo Sr., his wife, Louise, their two sons and two daughters were shot while they slept in the home and the one remaining family member alive, Ronald, nicknamed Butch DeFeo, he confessed to the murders and is serving a life sentence in prison. And then just a few weeks after the sentencing of Butch, George and Kathy Lutz and their three children moved into the home where a new round of supposed horrors began. Muwahaha. Well, not really.

S: Tell us about them.

E: Oh, there was supposedly all sorts of things happening in this house. They reported sightings of—well, the kids reported sightings of animals, mostly a pig named Jody. A sculpted lion came to life and supposedly walked around the house.

S: Cool.

E: A demonic boy appeared. It was photographed and you can find that famous photograph online. Kind of looks like a regular boy but that's beside the point. And other strange things in the house. Oh, green slime oozed from the walls. Crucifix on the wall was constantly rotating until it left itself upside down and, needless to say, 28 days after they moved in—

S: 28 days later.

E: 28 days later. Good one Steve. The Lutz's fled.

S: What about the—you forgot about the hell-mouth. It's a gaping mouth to hell in their basement.

J: Wait. Wasn't that in Poltergeist.

E: That was another movie, I think.

B: No. No no no.

E: You're right, Steve.

J: It's the red room.

S: Yeah. It was a red room, which in the movie they kind of made it seem like it was the road to hell or something.

E: Now there was one small problem with all of these paranormal happenings. They never really happened. It was a story—

S: It was fake.

E: The whole thing was fake. However, that didn't stop famous demonologist and psychic investigator—paranormal investigator Ed Warren and his wife Loraine from investigating the matter and deeming that house to be one of the most haunted places in the world.

S: Right. Right after their basement.

E: That's right. Their basement in Monroe, Connecticut #1, Aminityville #2.

S: That's right. Right. It was fake. And now it's up for sale.

E: It is. So—if you've got dollars burning a whole in your pocket—

S: Right.

E: You might want to go get a piece of history.

S: The people who bought the house after the Lutz's complained that they had to deal with the paranormal tourists bothering them day in and day out. Gawking at the house and everything. So—

E: Yeah. So much so that they had to change the address of the house.

S: Yeah. So it really was psychologically damaged for them, cause it came with all the tourists.

B: Yeah, right.

J: So, I'm looking at a picture of the demon boy.

S: Yeah.

J: It's a little boy.

S: With no eyes.

J: Well, the eyes are whited out so it looks kind of creepy. Photo could have been doctored.

E: Could have been a dozen things, right, other than a demonic boy from hell.

Who's That Noisy? (38:46)

S: Well, thanks for that, Evan, and why don't we go on to Who's That Noisy?

E: Okay. For those of you who forgot here is last week's Who's that Noisy.

?: And then I began to study back—the relationships between the elements for plants and they are different as the elements for humans. Because Cali and Forswore are actually the friends of each other in the homeopathic material magica for humans, but in plants these two substances are each other's enemy.

S: Mm hmm.

E: Mm hmm. So, you learned a little bit about homeopathy in that clip.

S: That's right. Two substances—

E: Or not.

S: Two substances which are enemies in plants are friends in people. Or animals.

E: Bet you didn't know that before.

J: So who is that guy?

E: That is V. D. Kaviraj. A homeopath of some repute and the reason I actually found this person is because I was watching a Youtube video of our—well, friend, Mr. Benneth—

S: Right.

E: Who had this fellow as part of an interview so I thought that would make a rather interesting Noisy, last week.

S: Right.

E: And, not only did someone get it correctly but they actually also went ahead and found the clip from which I clipped it so if you go onto our message boards and Episode 256 you can actually take a look and listen for yourself to the entire interview and bring some coffee cause you with otherwise fall asleep.

S: You don't want your brain to explode. Yeah.

E: Exactly. So, NoWoo, en-oh-double you-oh-oh, from the message boards guessed correctly. Congratulations. Well done.

S: Yeah. What have you got for this week, Evan?

E: Okay. And here is this weeks Who's That Noisy.

?: Does the shade give you the authority you need to take dangerous products off the shelves? And the answers always yes.

E: That's a short one this week.

S: Alright. Thanks Evan.

E: But I think there's enough information in there for someone to get it. So, be the first one to guess correctly. Good luck everyone.

S: Thanks, Ev.

Questions and Emails

Soy (41:02)

S: We have time for a few e-mails this week. The first one comes from Michael Wilson from Prescott, Arizona and Michael writes,

Steve - You made the offhand comment that there are "serious concerns" that soy milk is producing an estrogen type hormonal effect. I am a vegan bodybuilder who drinks a quart of soy milk everyday. I am concerned your offhand comment will scare people away from switching to a healthier milk alternative with no saturated fat. I've looked in the past when people have made these claims, and all I can find is that there may be some very mild effect, but nothing that rises to the level of your "serious concern" comment. If there was, there would be serious estrogen related issues throughout Asian countries. Since you felt it necessary to scare people away from soy by telling them about the "serious concerns" science has with soy milk, I hope you will provide the research on you next show that proves soy milk causes serious estrogen like effects. I do love the show, and I thank everyone for the time and effort you guys put into it every week.

Michael Wilson Prescott, AZ

S: So, Michael's referring to two weeks ago when we had Pamela Gay and Frazier Cane on when—I can't remember what we were talking about but the notion of estro—the notion of—

B: Pamela said she drink soy milk and then we got onto the discussion.

S: She drinks soy milk. Yeah, so I was razzing her a little bit about the fact that not everything is perfectly safe. You could find concerns about anything and in fact there are concerns about the estrogen like effects of soy milk. But it was an off hand comment, but I do think it's good for follow up to see what the evidence actually shows. The concerns are raised by the fact that soy contains isoflavones which have an estrogen effect. It's hormonally active and therefor that creates that plausibility that it could have some actual clinical effects in people and there are various populations in which it has been studied. So, one group are women who—are women in general, especially women who have had breast cancer. The question is do the estrogens increase the risk of breast cancer or if you have breast cancer does it worsen the outcome. The answer to that question appears to be no. So the evidence so far is pretty solid that there's no negative effect for women with breast cancer. In fact one review I read said that there may in fact be a small beneficial effect because it may competitively block the effects of women who have high estrogen levels. So there it's either no effect or maybe a small beneficial effect in a subset of women. The bigger concerns are with men, though, because obviously estrogen is a feminizing hormone and the question is does—do the estrogen effects of isoflavones in soy milk have a feminizing effect on men? So far the research does not show any such effect. What about the reproductive effects on men? Here, we have animal data which shows that there is a negative effect. This is where the biggest concerns are. And these concerns are that we haven't done enough research to really know what the net effects are in people. So we have animal data that shows some concern but not really sufficient human data to rule out that there may be a negative effect on the reproduction of men. The final group are infants, especially since there is a soy based infant formulas. And here there were several reviews in the last couple of years. Some saying there's really no proven effect. Other reviewers saying that, again, there is concern that there maybe some hormonal effects on infants and that—and essentially where the reviewers agree is that the research is not adequate to rule out a significant effect. Therefor if you want to be cautious you may avoid using soy based infant formulas until more research is done to show that there isn't any significant effect. Estrogen like effect. So that's where we are. I do think it's fair to say that there are concerns. Nothing is proven. And while some of those concerns have been ruled out by research there are others, specifically reproduction in men and in infants where we don't have enough research to really say that they're safe. My take is that it's probably a very weak effect. I would be surprised if the research ultimately showed that there was a strong effect, but those are the areas where the research is not yet sufficient to confidently say that there isn't a potential effect.

B: But also—but this guy, Steve, if you're—if you're not an infant and you're beyond—you've already had your kids and you're done with kids, then it would be even less of a concern?

S: That's right. And if you're a woman, there's basically no concern.

B: Okay.

S: Right.

Cursed Cell Phone Number (45:50)

The cursed cell phone number Thought you guys might like this story of truly stupid superstitious thinking that misses the glaringly obvious.

Telegraph: Mobile phone number suspended after three users die in 10 years

Danforth France Glendale, CA

S: Jay, you're gonna tell us about the cursed cell phone number.

J: Yeah. This is really silly to be honest with you.

B: It's silly.

E: Silly.

J: It's just one of those story where there's a string of coincidences that could make certain people think certain things but, basically there was a phone number that was given out. And I don't know if this is the real number but it seems like it isn't because it's a seri—it's 0-888-888-888—

S: So, that's the number. I mean, my understanding from reading is that's the number that they suspended.

J: Okay. Could be. Now, isn't the number 8 unlucky somewhere?

B: No. It's lucky in Asian cultures. Isn't 8—8 is lucky, so—

J: 4 is unlucky.

S: 4 is unlucky cause it sounds like death.

J: Yeah, right.

E: 4 is unlucky. 8 is—

J: So, here's the quick one two. The first person who got it, he was the former CEO of a Bulgarian mobile phone company. His company issued him the number.

S: Yeah.

J: He died of cancer in 2001 at 48 years old. After he died some rumors came out that his cancer had been caused by a business rival using radioactive poisoning. I find that unlikely, but, okay. Take that away. Let's just say that guy died. It's horrible. Died of cancer in 2001. 48 years old. That was horrible. The second that got the number was a Bulgarian mafia boss. There's a couple of things that mafia bosses do really well. They kill, and then they get killed.

S: Right.

J: Right? So this guy was gunned down in 2003 by an assassin.

B: What are the odds?

S: Yeah, right.

E: A mafia killing? What?

J: Then the number went to another guy who was described as a crooked business man and he was gunned down outside of an Indian restaurant in Bulgaria. So since then the number was retired because the police are investigating and all this stuff, but, there's the idea that the number is cursed or unlucky—

S: Or jinxed.

E: It's your unlucky number.

J: Yeah. It's been—the number has been touched by evil and anyone who gets it is gonna get killed. So I'm thinking—

E: Anyone mob related who touches it will get killed.

J: Yeah. It's pretty clear to see—

E: Or crime related.

J: through this. It's not that big of a coincidence that a bunch of people that were involved in very dangerous and crazy criminal activity are getting killed.

B: But if a number becomes available—is it more likely that the number became available because somebody dumped the number or because somebody died? Because I'm never gonna want to lose my number today.

S: Yeah. I don't know. Now that people have personal phone numbers. Yeah. Probably people hold on to them for life. Even if you change carrier, right? You can take your number to another carrier.

J: Yeah. Now you can. I don't know if you could in early 2000—2003. I don't know if you could during that time period. So, anyway, the reason why we bring up this story was not just because somebody wrote in about it but we thought it was a quick and easy example of a series of events strung together to make a story where there really isn't a story or a connection.

S: Yeah. There's a few ways you can look at this. One is it's not that big a coincidence that 3 people with the same number die in the short period of time. Just taking the number of phone numbers out there, I'm sure that happens a lot just by coincidence. Right? I mean it would be surprising if that never happened. This is a little different because these people were high profile and the number's unusual. It's—you could of it as a very desirable number because it's all 8's. It's the kind of number you get if you work for the phone company like the CEO or you're a mob boss, I guess. Right? They're not going to give it to just some guy. And these—two of these three people were at high risk for dying so that makes it even less of a coincidence that this kind of number is going to go to the kind of people who may be in risky businesses. But then you also think of it from the phone companies point of view. Obviously the notion that the number itself is jinxed is magical thinking and it's ridiculous but from a business marketing point of view, do they want to hand this number over to somebody else and then what if something happens to that person or even—they may just get upset if they find out that the phone company assigned them a quote unquote "jinxed" number. You know what I mean? Probably just fewer headaches for the phone company if they just get rid of it, even for a while. You know what I mean? You know what I mean?

E: Yeah. It's a numbers racket.

J: That's a good job, boys. It's good work, boys.

Magic Bee Juice (50:27)

S: The next one comes from David Gardner from Osaka, Japan. And David writes,

One of the branches of the company I work for in Japan has started selling Propolis as a means to make more money in a bad economy. This branch has repeatedly tried to get me to buy some of this magic bee juice. Many of my Japanese co-workers have taken the bait. They are putting bee juice in their drinks and swallowing magic bee juice pills. When I ask them if they feel any better, they all say they aren’t sure. Hmm… I think the company I work for has a snake oill division. Do you know of any scientific evidence that shows any benefit to taking Propolis? All the information I found say that Propolis may contain lead and other garbage bees pick up while flying around the city. Thank you for your time.

David Gardner Osaka, Japan

S: Well, do you guys now what Propolis is?

B: Nope.

J: No.

E: It's the star in the sky that doesn't rotate.

S: It's magic bee juice. This is—So, bees make a variety of things. This is the gooey, sticky stuff that bees use to hold together their nests. They largely pick it up—

E: Oh. The honey comb?

S: I guess so, yeah. But it's not just wax. I guess this is even stronger structural stuff that they use—it's like the glue that they use to hold it together and its—they'll pick up the sap from coniferous trees. Resins. It sounds nasty. It doesn't sound like the kind of stuff you would want to eat. I mean the bees don't eat it. It contains phenolics, aromatic compounds, volatile oils and terpenes. But even worse that that, as the bees fly around our modern society they're not just picking up resins from pine trees. They're also picking up lead paint. They're picking up caulking.

B: Yum.

S: They're picking up road tar and other things.

E: Fecal material.

S: Yeah. They're picking up all kinds of nasty stuff and mixing it all together with these resins and terpenes and they're using that to glue together their nests and then—and idiots are taking that stuff and eating it.

E: Now, when you say idiot—

J: It's glue like?

S: It's sticky. If you get the sap off a pine tree—it's like that.

E: That's awful.

S: Now, of course, it contains a lot of chemicals, right? As you might imagine—

E: It's all natural.

S: Sure. And if you look at those chemicals those chemicals do stuff. The body's going to react to those chemicals. Actually, probably the most common reaction is an allergic dermatitis and when I looked up Propolis on PubMed most of the specific references to it and people were to—this allergic dermatitis.

E: Is this the same allergic reaction people have when they get a bee sting?

S: No. No. It's different. This is more just a contact dermatitis. The skin gets red and bee stings can have more of a systemic reaction. That's where it becomes a problem, as opposed to just a rash. So, there's no research in humans showing any beneficial effects. It's all extrapolating wildly from just nonspecific—or just reactions that happen to some chemical that you can find in this stuff. There some animal data that it does stuff, but there's nothing that really can be used to base any kind of medicinal claims. So this really is snake oil. And apparently it's been around for hundreds of years. This is nothing new. It's just an idea that crops up every now and then.

E: Here. Eat this bee waste byproduct.

S: Yeah. It's bee waste. It is bee waste.

E: Bee waste.

S: Pretty much everything that bees make somebody has decided to sell as snake oil. Pollen, royal jelly, and even bee venom. You guys have heard—I've talked about bee venom therapy.

E: Bee venom therapy, sure.

S: Yeah. For, multiple sclerosis and arthritis and things like that. Pretty much everything. The only thing that bees make that has real medicinal value is honey and only if you put it topically on your wound.

E: Or on toast.

J: I love honey.

E: I love you too, honey.

B: Never spoils.

Name That Logical Fallacy: Personality Tests (54:41)

S: Well, we actually have a Name that Logical Fallacy this week.

B: Ooo.

E: Ooo. Queue the music.

S: This is a question that comes from some guy called Mike Lacelle in Canada.

J: Who is he?

E: That a funny name.

S: I don't know. Some bald guy.


S: And Mike wants to know—

E: But despite that—

J: And Mike will be at TAM this year, by the way.

S: Oh, this guy's gonna be at TAM?

J: Yes.

E: Oh. I can't wait to meet him.

B: I'm not going now.


J: I'll see you there Mike.

S: Mike writes,

Steve, I'm trying to figure out the difference between the Incorrect Cause fallacy and the Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc fallacy? Skepticwiki is telling me that Post Hoc is a type of Incorrect Cause Fallacy, but I'm just not getting the difference. They seem to be one and the same. Any help would be appreciated. I'm trying to complete a 5x5 recording we did a few months ago and I'm recording a missing part which was about the "Incorrect Cause" fallacy. The topic of the 5x5 was Chemtrails and it seems to me that the Post Hoc fallacy would work better here.

Mike Lacelle Canada

S: So, this is an interesting one. The Incorrect Cause Fallacy is actually a category of logical fallacies.

B: Yeah. There's lots of—and the Post Hoc is just a sub-category of it.

S: Exactly. It's one type.

B: Right.

S: It's any fallacy where you are making an invalid inference as to cause and effect. That's the Incorrect Cause Fallacy. My—I had a couple back and forths with Mike and he was saying that if you invoke the wrong cause for something just because your information is incorrect is that an incorrect cause fallacy and the answer to that is no. It doesn't me that you're just mistaken about what causes what, that's just a false premise, it's that the logical inference is incorrect, cause that's what a logical fallacy is. So, in the Post Hoc Ergo Proctor Hoc Fallacy, you're concluding that B is caused by A because B follows A. That's where the invalid logic comes in. You're reaching the conclusion not because you just have a mistake belief but because you think that the fact that it comes after it is how you know that it's being caused by it.

B: Right. So it's more sequential, whereas the Incorrect Cause Fallacy—it could be—

S: Is anything.

B: It could be after. It could be anything.

E: It could go any direction.

B: They could happen at the same exact time. Could be AB instead of A followed by B. Could be at the same time or even—or other variations. So that's the main distinction as I see it.

S: Yeah. And it's not even restricted to temporal but—another common Incorrect Cause Fallacy is the—assuming causation from correlation as you're saying.

B: Yeah.

S: They're correlated in some way, not because, necessarily, one follows the other but they could just be happening together more frequently or at the same time and then you assume that they're happening together because one is causing the other when, in fact, there are many relationships that possible. You cannot infer a specific causal relationship. Often people, however, say that—and I hear people say this, or write this, all the time, that correlation does not imply causation and that's incorrect. I does imply causation. It just does equal causation.

B: Right. Right.

S: Sometimes correlations occur because there is causation and it is—it certainly does imply that. It's one piece of evidence, but in order to make a specific causal conclusion you have to line up multiple correlations. Other examples of this would include the Complex Cause Fallacy, where maybe there are multiple causations but you pick one out and say that's the cause.

B: Yeah.

S: That's a very common one, right?

B: Yeah.

S: We all sort of unconsciously do that all the time where we tend to think simplistically in terms of one cause for things when in fact many complex things will have multiple causes that are not mutually exclusive.

J: And it's not just one cause. It could also be the most interesting cause has got to be it, too, right?

S: Yeah.

J: We're so drawn to the one thats—

S: That's interesting or—

J: sexy.

S: or the one that confirms our prior beliefs and ideology.

J: Yes.

E: Ah, confirmation bias.

S: Then there's the Regression Fallacy. This is where you assume cause and effect because of what ultimately regression to the mean. Here's an example. Appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated is a curse that will cause them to have a bad season or a bad game or whatever following that.

E: I've heard that before, yeah.

S: Yeah. The Sports Illustrated curse. But that can be explained by regression to the mean.

B: Right. They were on the cover in the first place because they might—they just happened to have, say, and exceptional season, right?

S: Yes.

B: And then of course the regression to the mean has got to kick in at some point, you would think, and then it's like, "Oh, damn. Bad luck."

S: Yeah. They had their best game, their best season, whatever. That gets them on the cover and any extreme is likely to be followed by something closer to the mean. The regression to the mean.

J: That's very similar to the Droning On Fallacy where skeptical enthusiasts just keep talking about logical fallacies over and over again.

S: Jay, I'm not familiar with that one.

E: I'm not either. Hey, here's another logical fallacy.

Science or Fiction (1:00:07)

  • Item number one: NIST scientists have developed a "dark laser" that is endothermic - it takes heat away from an object on which it is focused.
  • Item number two: A new analysis suggests that many comets, including well-known comets like Halley's and Hale Bopp, originated from other solar systems.
  • Item number three: Scientists report a 5-fold increase in the growth of rice plants from manipulating the genetics of a fungus that grows on its roots.

Skeptical Quote of the Week (1:14:40)

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.

Sir Winston Churchill


NECSS Con (1:18:11)

S: The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe is produced by the New England Skeptical Society in association with the James Randi Educational Foundation and For more information on this and other episodes, please visit our website at For questions, suggestions, and other feedback, please use the "Contact Us" form on the website, or send an email to If you enjoyed this episode, then please help us spread the word by voting for us on Digg, or leaving us a review on iTunes. You can find links to these sites and others through our homepage. 'Theorem' is produced by Kineto, and is used with permission.


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